1 Bradford Pakeezah and Me
This isn’t a blog about Bollywood films; it’s a blog about the history of Bollywood’s relationship with Britain. I won’t be reviewing the latest films. I’m hoping to uncover the behind-the-scenes stories which have helped to make Bollywood films so popular in Britain today.
Bollywood films have been shown in Britain since at least the 1950s when South Asian migrant mill workers in cities like Bradford and Coventry sought entertainment on their day off. Asian entrepreneurs began to hire cinemas to show Bollywood movies on Sunday afternoons. Demand was so high that some even bought cinemas and established Indian film societies. British locations have featured in Indian films for decades, with the rolling landscape of the Lake District and Scottish castles acting as ‘exotic’ backdrops for numerous song and dance sequences. Britain featuring as part of the storyline is a relatively recent phenomenon. I’ve noted mounting interest in Indian films among my English friends. There was a time when my mates would consider watching a subtitled French film as a valuable cultural experience, yet Bollywood was strictly off limits. I sensed a shift after Shilpa Shetty’s run in with Jade Goody on Big Brother at the beginning of 2007. There was more mainstream exposure for Bollywood later the same year when Yorkshire hosted the IIFA Awards (Bollywood Oscars). Now we’ve reached the stage where credible Kylie has starred in a Bollywood song and dance sequence (‘Chiggy Whiggy’, Blue, D’Souza, 2009).
So here’s what I’ve got in mind. I want to talk to people who’ve been involved in bringing Bollywood to Britain. I want to track down some of the pioneers that screened the first Indian films in this country. I want to find out how the Bollywood Oscars ended up being held in Yorkshire. I’ve heard the offer of a friendly match at Headingley (Indians love cricket!) sealed it for the organisers, but is this really true? Another story I want to check is that Andrew Lloyd Webber apparently had a habit of watching Bollywood music channels with the volume turned down. The story goes that he was inspired to work with composer A R Rehman on a Bollywood style musical (Bombay Dreams, 2002) after seeing a clip of ‘Chaiyya Chaiyya’, which features a woman dancing on the roof of a moving train with Shahrukh Khan (Dil Se, Ratnam, 1998).
I want to share my love of Bollywood films, especially the old classics, and make them accessible to Bollywood beginners. So if you’ve never seen an Indian film, this blog might sway you, and may even help you decide which films to watch. I’m also hoping this blog will help me to think about my own relationship with Bollywood, and the part these films have played in my life. I wasn’t raised on a pure Bollywood diet, but the increasing availability of Indian films in early 1980s Bradford certainly helped me to come to terms with my cultural identity. Let me explain.
I was born in Keighley (where the Railway Children was filmed) but we went to live in Pakistan when I was four. We moved back in 1977 when I was nine. It was the year Elvis died, only I didn’t know who he was because my terms of reference were based on my convent schooling in Rawalpindi. We’d left behind a massive extended family – grandparents, uncles and cousins galore. We had no family in England. We settled on the mostly white Canterbury council estate in Bradford. Mum was now a single parent to three children, holding down three jobs in order to keep a roof over our heads. She worked as a machinist by day and took in piece-work from factories at night because the Brits wouldn’t recognise the teaching qualification she’d gained in Pakistan. Socialising involved changing two buses to visit an ‘aunt’ (usually one of mum’s work colleagues, and always Pakistani). Our sole entertainment was watching TV. Mum got really excited on Sunday mornings when a (now iconic) magazine programme, Nayee Zindagi Naya Jeevan (New Way New Life), would be shown on the BBC. It featured a news update from back home, chat with a special guest and an entertainment slot. It was especially for Asians like us and best of all, it was in Urdu. It was probably the only programme we could watch without the fear of a mildly explicit scene making us squirm with discomfort!
School was difficult. I had little in common with my mostly white classmates – we hadn’t yet embraced the concept of multiculturalism! So they discussed boyfriends and mocked me because I wasn’t allowed to have one. They went to discos and parties but I wasn’t allowed to. They went into town on a Saturday afternoon while my mum escorted me and my siblings to the library. Eid was a bit of a non-event really. We got a day off school but we’d be all dressed up with nowhere to go. We didn’t celebrate Christmas although I began fabricating a list of presents from Santa, to make me sound normal in class. Nowadays, we Pakistanis in Bradford seem to have developed a cockiness that has even earned us a degree of notoriety. Back then, we still walked around apologising for being different. If they weren’t calling me “garlic breath” in the school canteen, then my classmates would be sharing a particular joke with me in the playground. It was based on a TV ad for a popular mint with a hole in the centre: “What’s the difference between a Paki and a Polo?” And the punch line went: “People like Polo!”
I think it was in the early 80s that Channel 4 began to screen a Bollywood season, showing an Indian film around 2am on a Friday or a Saturday night. I was in my early teens. I would religiously record the films on our VCR so I could play them back over and over again. Mostly the films were classics I think, many black and white, with traditional tales of romance. And even if they were a bit racy, at least they were doing it all in our mother tongue which somehow made it more acceptable. I didn’t even know what a courtesan was when I first watched Pakeezah (Pure of Heart, Amrohi, 1971). I was mesmerised by the bewitching Meena Kumari performing ‘Inhi Logon Ne’ in a magnificent red costume, so the notion of her singing about losing her honour whilst dancing in the courtesan quarters for prospective clients, went completely over my head! To be fair, it was all done so poetically, in typical Bollywood style.
This was also the first time I actively listened to Bollywood music, usually just recording the songs off the TV manually, by holding a cassette recorder near the TV speakers. These songs felt special because they were in my language which I rarely got to speak outside our house. I suppose I sought refuge in those early Bollywood classics like Pakeezah and Taj Mahal (Sadiq, 1963). Whilst I knew the words to every Duran Duran song ever recorded, it was probably the first time I hummed or listened to a pop song that wasn’t in English. They infused in me a sense of pride, and a sense of belonging. They made me feel that our language, our music, our clothes, and our culture were worthy of appreciation.
Mum had watched some of the older films and heard the songs when she was growing up in Pakistan, so they evoked a sense of history that we yearned for. Our new life in Bradford meant there was no history of mum around us; no pictures or mementoes of her life before marriage. We’d arrived in England with our clothes bundled in a few suitcases and not much else. Christian Housing Aid had kindly sent a truck to furnish our council home. Now, everywhere we went was new, as were our relationships, so there was no link to mum’s past. In a sense, classic Bollywood movies helped to bridge that gap. I remember those films gave mum some scarce moments of relaxation on the sofa. Mum would translate for us if the language proved difficult, or she would explain if we couldn’t follow the plot – which was usually a complicated love triangle. She would reminisce about her father’s fondness for music. He was a clerk in the British Indian Army when mum was a little girl. This was around 1945 before mum was even ten years old. Her father brought back a gramophone from one of his postings. Every time he returned to the village on vacation, he’d be clutching the latest records – qawwalis, naats (religious songs) as well as filmi songs. When the family slept on the roof on hot summer nights, he would ceremoniously set up the gramophone on a table on the rooftop, laying out a table cloth underneath. The sound of music travelled far, and attracted villagers to congregate on the charpois (beds) laid out on the roof. There they would sit and marvel at this new contraption. Years later, when mum started college in Rawalpindi, trips to the cinema were endorsed as long as she was up to date with her studies and prayers. Mum’s favourite films featured the classic pairings of Dilip Kumar and Noor Jehan, or Raj Kapoor and Nargis. Looking back, reconnecting with those films in 1980s Britain probably offered mum a rare distraction. More importantly, they gave all of us a valuable link to her childhood in Pakistan.
THE NEXT INSTALMENT: JOSIE THE DANCING GIRL
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Written by Irna Qureshi
09/01/2011 at 10:34 pm
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